Professional Rugby in the United States. What an exciting, fluid, and contentious topic.
Jake Frechette has written an excellent and inquisitive article, “Austin Huns, Griffins, Red River: More Professional Rugby In America?” for Rugby Wrap Up. I have also spoken to some of the same protagonists in Texas and other regions, and as Jake states – they have some really solid things going on, and ‘this league can work’. The regional rugby model they talk about is compelling and worth discussion. If there were 4-5 regional Pro competitions, imagine adding a ‘champions cup/challenge cup’ type competition to ‘nationalize’ the competition.
USAR Strategic Plan – the Most Important Thing You Never Cared About
Jake’s article discusses potential legal issues with Doug Schoninger and PRO Rugby. I have no domain on that matter, but it essential that the entire professional rugby landscape get serious consideration in USA Rugby’s Strategic Plan (currently in writing). For the USA to have a shot at competing on the global stage we must have the best and brightest we have providing input on this Strategic Plan. The Plan must create the space for professional rugby to exist at many levels.
What is ‘Professional’ Rugby
I don’t agree with many who feel the act of paying players means your ‘professional’. The components that are the basis for ‘professionalism’; I.e. coaching, facilities, commercial revenues, strength/conditioning, medical support, etc… should all be in place before considering the paying of players. The best players want to play the best rugby, period. Getting paid for it is a bonus, at least initially. The proponents of regional professional rugby around the country, are proponents of this. Many of the regional clubs (I.e., the Texas crowd) appear to understand this culture building as they grow their own professional brand. The existing brand of PRO Rugby, took a different approach. PRO has focused on paying players, attracting ‘name’ players and seeking to ‘prove the concept’. Both models require an enormous investment; and risk without a Strategic Plan that exemplifies a true vision for professional rugby in the USA.
The sanctioning of PRO Rugby last year provided USAR an initial plan A for professional rugby in the USA. Debating this decision, and the implementation of PRO will do nothing to move our rugby forward. Clearly what USAR does need is a plan B, and perhaps a plan C and D.
Elite Competition is Essential
Whatever the ‘tiers’ that appear in our rugby – we must have an elite competition from which our Eagles are selected. Hopefully we mature into a rugby playing nation that sustains professional rugby to the point the Union can mandate players play in the domestic competition. That will be a great day for American rugby. Perhaps we could incorporate our own ‘Giteau Rule’ at some point.
We go backwards if our legacy clubs go it alone outside guidance of a well written, and accepted Strategic Plan. We also owe it to these clubs to provide a consistent landscape for them to develop their own professional aspirations.
One of the goals of professionalizing must be success at the National Team level. For professional rugby to help achieve this goal, our top players must be able to compete each week against one another. We must be careful not to dilute the quality of play at the top level of Professional rugby for the sake of simply growing more professional teams. PRO Rugby, w/ 5 teams struggles to deliver the high performance it eventually should. If we allow the talent pool to spread too thin, our elite team performance will continue to suffer. We’ll see what the Strategic Plan dictates. I believe PRO Rugby COO Stephen Lewis has done an excellent job putting a presentable product on the field this first year, given the resources available. However, it is clear the rugby community in America demands more.
Regardless of what ‘the clubs’ decide, it must be in context with what is highlighted in the increasingly important USAR Strategic Plan. Clubs should also have an opportunity to participate in the Strategic Plan creations. Literally everyone around the rugby world asks ‘when will we get it together in American rugby’.
Highly Functional Organizations ‘Live’ The Plan
The answer relies on the quality, implementation, and execution of the USAR Strategic Plan. I would call for an Independent Stakeholders Group to assist in the Plan creation and development. I have recently heard that George Henderson, the leading consultant on this project will be seeking assistance from such outsiders in the vetting process. This is excellent news.
Often we look for foreign assistance in our rugby; all current head coaches at our elite level are foreign. This a time we must consult professional rugby/sports experts both inside and outside the USA. There is a lot to be learned about the integration of professionalism into rugby from overseas successes and failures. We have a low cost opportunity to learn from those who have tread these waters before.
Professional rugby, and how it will fit into our rugby culture is a hot topic and will reach inferno status before it’s all settled. There are many other issues to be addressed in the Strategic Plan. The Women’s structure needs reconsideration, and ‘This Is American Rugby’ recently exposed issues in the College game. Of all the issues, I have found professional rugby currently the most contentious.
The integration of professional rugby into the landscape is a huge responsibility for USA Rugby. We must get it right, and use every available resource at our disposal. The successful execution of a well implemented, visionary Plan is critical.
I have been nominated for a seat on the USA Rugby Board of Directors. These are my thoughts.